Conditioning your body to burn fat involves more than just training properly. Fat metabolism relies on a low stress lifestyle as well as a diet that promotes fat-for-fuel. I won’t go into proper training here – that’s been done over at the Sock Doc Training Principles and other areas on this site. I could also talk in great lengths about how to lower stress so you’re not pumping out a lot of stress hormones (primarily cortisol) throughout the day and burning more glucose than what you should be, but I won’t – because it’s so individualized and in a way it’s common sense, though admittedly easier said than done.
If you are dealing with a lot of stress whether it’s your work, family, finances, or other, you’ve got to do what you can do to deal with these stresses before they wreck your health, if they haven’t already. As I say to my patients, “Fix what you can fix.” This means that if you can’t fix a lifestyle situation right now for whatever reason, then do your best to modify it as best as you can. But you can always change your exercise habits and you can always change your diet. There’s really no excuse unless you’re in prison; well maybe some of you have other scenarios too, but you get my point. Let’s learn how to eat properly to burn more fat rather than sugar. Note: This is sort of “Part II” of many parts in the Sock Doc discussion of “Carbohydrates: Evil or Essential?”. Check out Part I here.
Eat Fat to Burn Fat
Diet is a huge factor when it comes to your body becoming aerobically efficient and burning fat for fuel. Even if you could care less about endurance training or racing you should still be concerned with aerobic metabolism – it makes you a mentally and physically efficient human being. So with all the information out there – what do you eat, when do you eat, and how much do you eat?
First, I’ll start by saying you ultimately have to see what works for you, but there are definite things you should be doing, and plenty of things you should not be doing. But next I’ll say that if you think your diet is working for you, don’t assume that it can’t be improved. You have to experiment and get out of your comfort zone some to see if you can feel better and perform better by tweaking your diet even more. In a way, your diet is always a work in progress, but that doesn’t mean you chase down what you think is the latest-and-greatest diet in the news this month.
A diet lower in carbs and higher in fats fuels a healthy aerobic metabolism and keeps your glycogen in your muscles for when you want to train hard, train long duration, lift heavy, or do all three. This type of diet also keeps your brain functioning well as the brain runs off of glucose, (ketones too which will be discussed later), and you should have plenty stored in your liver and circulating in your blood to provide adequate sugar. So how much fat should you be eating in your diet – 50%, 60% – 70% – or more (or less)? The answer depends on your body but I’ll say that you should shoot for the higher end and you should eventually, over time, be able to function on much more fat in your diet than carbohydrates.
I’ll use me as an example. I used to eat a diet consisting roughly 50% of fat, 20% protein, and 30% carbohydrates. When I would train over two hours, I had to eat something such as some gel packs, (like GU), or an energy drink. During a race over 90 minutes I’d always consume some carbs – I had to. Eventually I increased my fats to 60-70% of my diet, and now I can easily run three hours, (aerobically of course,) with no food and no fluid (including water unless it’s really hot out). In a race I won’t consume any carbs unless it’s over two hours. I don’t need them like I used to and not only am I a stronger athlete, but I’m healthier too. For example, my cholesterol is so much improved, which you can read about here.
Another major change I made in my diet just over the past couple years is I have, for the most part, stopped snacking between meals unless I’m training hard. Like most physicians, I was taught one way and eventually learned that the way I was taught was wrong. Unfortunately this occurs all too often in the professional education system. Believe it or not, I’m humble enough to know when the advice I was giving to patients wasn’t the best advice, as now I think otherwise. So now I recommend that my patients do not snack, unless they are exercising to the point where it is advised, (that’s long duration or high intensity), and they only eat three or four meals a day. Snacking creates habitually high blood sugar levels; it never corrects the problem. This is why people with “low blood sugar” always have blood sugar issues – they will never resolve the problem. If you go around all day snacking on carrot sticks, fruit, crackers, and other carbohydrate foods, you’re giving yourself sugar all day long. So eat three to four meals a day with a lot of fat, and adequate protein.
If you focus on eating fat, (that’s grass fed meats, fish, eggs, butter, cheese, cream, nuts, seeds, olive oil, coconut milk & oil, chocolate, avocado), and take note of the protein then you’re left with carbohydrate foods. How much protein should an athlete consume? A good rule is to take in around 1.5 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight. So if you’re 150 pounds (roughly 70 kg) then you need around 100-105 grams of protein a day. That’s only 400 calories, so for an active person who might need a minimum of 2,000 calories a day, it’s only 25% of the total caloric intake.
Starting making some of these changes in your diet now. If your diet is roughly 50% fat, don’t just jump to 70% tomorrow. Gradually increase it and see how you feel. Switch your whole milk in your coffee to heavy cream. Dump olive oil on your salad. Use butter on everything and coconut milk more often. Eat more grass-fed beef rather than chicken. Enjoy!